Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Making scientific research participatory

Most of the scientific research, through out the world is public funded. That's true for Indian science too. One issue that is repeatedly raised, at various forums, from grant meetings to public discourses, is the public accountability of scientific research. Understanding of accountability has various shades. For managers of our science funding bodies, it's to create some product or service for public use, even if that's reinvention of wheel. It's seer political pressure, in a sense, to show something tangible to our people and political masters. For some others, it's the relevance of the topic of research in social context: should we, in India, focus more on diarrhea or on cancer? In this context, one can even have a class analysis of our research and can even look for the shadows of imperialism. Social accountability is often zoomed in, even with excessive pixelation, to justify research on something related only to one's own region, state or even district.

Going beyond the topic of research, we can look into another issue of accountability. That's to make our research participatory. Whatever be our research topic, we do not regularly communicate that to public. We never include the public in any discourse and debate. And am not talking of individuals. There exist no institutional mandate for a researcher to discuss, explain and debate about his/her work with fellow citizens. There exist no organized forum for that too. We debate over scientific agendas, national priorities and policies, but keep the people out of it. We consider public as a passive agent and believe, that we know every thing, that we know what is good for them,  that our fellow citizens are not capable to understand what we understand!

"We understand  and they do not" : that's what breaks the accountability. 

It is true that most of the people are not aware of basic tenets of modern science. They do not keep track of recent developments in different fields of science. They are not well versed with the specialized languages of superspecialities of science. All these makes it very difficult to communicate scientific research, particularly basic science research, to general public. But common people do have common sense. Can't we rely on that and attempt to break the barriers? Our citizens have limitations because we have not taken any initiative to interact and educate them. Because we do not have any systematic effort to build scientific temperament in our communities. In a sense, we keep them ignorant and then blame them for the same.

Science communication is difficult, even to a fellow scientist. Even then we write articles in science journals and give talks in meetings. And we spend lots of time to improve our skills for better writing and presentation. That's essential for our professional survival. Then why can't we make it mandatory for researchers to discuss science with general public? It will be difficult for most, but eventually they will develop the required skills.

The DST INSPIRE program for school children is very successful. In this program scientists working in the cutting-edge fields deliver lectures to school students on topics that are far beyond their text books. I agree most of these scientists are good orators and they do it voluntarily out of their passion. But it shows that if you want, you can communicate even to a school kid. And surely one will give some extra effort, if such public interactions are attached as a string to our research grants.

Such push can also come from individual research institutes. They can encourage their scientists to give public lectures, and write general science articles in news papers. They can organize regular public lectures, open weekend classes for general public. All these should be done through administrative mandates so that participating in such public programs become part of the job profile.

I know such efforts will be distractions for most of us. And may affect our primary objective, to do research. But beyond the debates accountability, such institutional efforts would eventually help back the research community. It will not only increase scientific temperament among the masses, but in long run it will improve the the public appreciation of scientific research. In a democracy, politicians keeps an ear to the street. And if we can impress the men on the street, our political masters would also be forced to be generous to research.